It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that farming games all have a lot in common. Crops, livestock, and dateable townsfolk are the staples of the genre, and if you've played one, you've likely experienced what a lot of them have to offer — and that's not even necessarily a bad thing for a genre that prides itself on comfort and familiarity.
But farming fans who have grown tired of Stardew-likes may find themselves searching for something a little more unique — and we think that they might find it in the upcoming, incredibly-detailed SunnySide, a game that sits somewhere between the idealised pastoral life of a Stardew Valley and the intensely realistic agricultural work of Farming Simulator.
In conjunction with a new series of videos, designed to showcase the elements of SunnySide, we sat down with the developers RainyGames — a small studio led by Sydney Stockdale as co-founder, producer, and narrative director, and Siavash Shahlaei as co-founder and game director — to find out more about their backgrounds, their lives, and why they decided to make a game like SunnySide.
Nintendo Life: Many farming games tend towards the chibi, cute style of art for their characters and animals. Why did you decide to go with a more realistic art style for SunnySide?
Siavash: Growing up with farming games, I am personally very familiar with the chibi style and its relationship with the genre! However, I think the farming genre is a bit tired at this point, not much innovation has been happening past Stardew Valley. Our core focus at RainyGames is how we can take the genre to its next natural evolution and moving from a chibi-style to a more anime, Persona 5-inspired style was the first step.
Our core focus at RainyGames is how we can take the genre to its next natural evolution
Sydney: Also because the chibi style just doesn’t speak to us. We’re all huge fans of anime, not only the different art styles within it, but also the story telling, and there are stories we wanted to tell that just wouldn’t come across right if we used the chibi or pixel styles. But there is a little more to it than that. A huge part of our motivation with SunnySide is to inspire people to consider growing their own food and supporting their local communities. Using more realism in all aspects of the game, it makes that leap from game to real life a lot easier.
Has making SunnySide helped with your own gardening skills?
Sydney: HAH. I wish. At the beginning of the pandemic, I found a master class on gardening and it looked SO easy. I went full in: built a ton of garden beds (back when wood was still cheap), bought a TON of seeds, and tried to do way too much way too fast. I lost everything to bugs and disease and the Texas heat. 2 years later, I’ve managed to grow a few strawberries.
A lot of what I learned from that process has gone into the design for SunnySide though. Gardening, and farming, really has to be learned slowly over time. Start with a couple plants. Then some more, and go from there. You have to learn how to walk before you can run, and the game really reflects that. No bugs or diseases in the game though. I’m too traumatized.
Siavash: I’d love to say yes but unfortunately not! Real-life gardening requires a lot of patience, patience which I lack severely! Not to mention, making games full-time is a lot more of a challenge than I originally thought it would be, so it’s artificial plants for me now, until I can take a break from developing!
We see raccoons and foxes threatening your farm in the trailer – what other pests and critters should we be worried about? Can you ever make peace with them?
Sydney: We’ve had a lot of back and forth on this one, and we are still working on the systems so I can’t say for certain what will make it into the game at this point. But I can say that the whole point of the pests is really to make room for pets in the game. We wanted them to be a little more than decoration, so we planned a pet/pest system to give your furry friends a job on your farm, similar to how a lot of farms tend to have “barn cats”. We have plans for rats, skunks, and a few other critters that will be a little annoying if you don’t have a furry friend to keep them at bay.
Still just plans at the moment, so the only real promise is that we do have dogs and cats, available in a few different fur colours and patterns. As for making peace with them… sort of? We have to be a bit careful when it comes to animals in the game in general, as we don’t want to encourage or inspire anyone to do anything potentially dangerous.
It never really made sense to me that a lot of farm games have you set as the “Hero of the town” who is capable of everything
There are a lot of different careers you can follow in the game, from home cook to soy sauce magnate. How did you decide which of the many farming avenues to explore in SunnySide?
Sydney: Just about every system in the game boils down to three main questions: How is this done in real life, how is this done in Japan, and how can we gamify it so it’s fun for the player. Everything we do goes through this process, even what skills and equipment would be available to the player. It never really made sense to me that a lot of farm games have you set as the “Hero of the town” who is capable of everything: farming, ranching, mining, smelting metals, crafting literally everything…
Siavash: We wanted to stay away from the idea that the player can do anything and everything, and instead focus on the community. That’s why in SunnySide you cannot smelt your own iron or mill your own flour, you need the people of the town to take advantage of all the aspects of the game. With that decided, we had a nice list of what real farmers do in real life and started from there.
Sydney: In giving these many of these jobs to the people around town, we wanted to make sure that the options available to the player were fun and also made sense, so we looked at the kinds of things that real homesteaders tend to specialize in: cooking, food manufacturing, ranching, farming, seed production, simple crafting, home building, and maybe a few other small skills here and there. We then looked at these systems and tried to make them realistic, fun, engaging, and broad enough that players can specialize if they want to or try a little of everything.
Can you tell us a little bit about some of the romantic interests in the game?
Siavash: There are 24 romantic interests in SunnySide, and a lot of them cover different sexualities, personalities and niches. When SunnySide went to Kickstarter, I was the sole writer and developer of the game, but I am beyond grateful that we managed to expand the team to the diversity that it has now. As soon as more people joined and we decided to make Sydney our narrative director, the characters started feeling more diverse and real. Having people of different ethnicities and genders work on the characters and stories has improved the game by miles.
We wanted the romantic stories to be more about the journey rather than just getting married and settling down
We wanted the romantic stories to be more about the journey rather than just getting married and settling down. We had to make a controversial decision of removing marriage from the base game so that we could put more time and effort into telling stories of how the relationship and love are formed. Instead of getting to a point where you can call a character your wife or husband, we wanted the player to have a lot of memories of how their relationship evolved in the first place.
Another controversial decision we made was to lock the NPCs sexualities. Instead of everyone being bisexual, we felt that was a bit unfair to the characters and the stories they could otherwise tell. That is another reason we have so many, we wanted to make sure to cover all genders and sexualities with as much age variety as we could. To tell real, human stories, we just had to lock NPCs sexualities, to give them more of a sense of individuality. However, the game does not define your body shape as your gender identifier, and we instead use our gender identity scale which you define when you make your character.
Are there seasons in SunnySide? If so, how do they change the farming aspect?
Siavash: Of course! There are four seasons in SunnySide, mirroring real life. The seasons change the overall look and atmosphere of the game pretty heavily, and in addition, you might spot different decorations around town based on the season. We also have season-specific events which occur yearly!
Sydney: Even though we are trying to upgrade a lot of the genre, even we agree that there are classics that shouldn’t be messed with, and seasons is one of them. Well… ok we did mess with it a little.
In SunnySide, all your crops don’t just die at the end of the seasons. We go back to that “what’s realistic” question. So some plants will last a couple seasons, like strawberries, and some will need to grow through multiple seasons before they can be harvested, like garlic in real life. We’re simplifying it into a “perennial” and “annual” system, with a lot of allowances that make it easier for the player to understand.
How does the Japanese setting affect the game?
Sydney: Honestly, I could probably write a college essay on this topic, but the short answer is: in a surprising number of ways. Firstly, I have to point out that the game doesn’t take place in a super realistic version of Japan, but more of a fantasy one. Second: I have to also point out that no one on the team is Japanese, though we do have a couple people who lived there for about a year. So… we had to do a TON of research. We are trying very hard to honour the culture and not disrespect it in any way.
The game doesn’t take place in a super realistic version of Japan, but more of a fantasy one
Siavash: Ever since playing Harvest Moon: Hero of Leaf Valley, I’ve been a huge fan of the aesthetic the Japanese countryside has. The atmosphere of that game is something I still love to this day and it’s something I’ve wanted to capture since the start of this project.
Another reason would be my personal respect and love for JRPGs. In my opinion, Japanese games have some of the best stories and some of the best character development, and I hope we can capture the same level of storytelling in our game. This is something we haven’t talked about much but we tap into a lot of Japanese folklore in our overarching story. We cannot wait to share more about it in the future!
The last, and probably the most obvious aspect is the anime style of the game. Considering how important the art style of the game is, I couldn’t imagine it taking place anywhere but Japan.
Sydney: But beyond that, the entire story couldn’t really take place anywhere else. Japan is going through something fairly unique right now in that the entire population is growing older, and small countryside towns have literally been abandoned as people move to the city or pass away. The pandemic has changed things a bit: younger people are starting to make homes in the countryside, and Japan overall is slowly growing more friendly to foreigners. SunnySide, the entire game, reflects all these developments.
We’ve seen cows, chickens, goats, and geese – what other animals can we raise in SunnySide?
Siavash: We’ve officially announced cows, chickens, goats, ducks and pigs! But we have a few more in the works that we can’t talk about just yet! In addition, after collecting all the data from our Kickstarter alpha, we’re tweaking the way animal products are collected, making it more robust and predictable.
Sydney: All the animals have a purpose on the farm, but one thing we have been very clear about is that your neighbour, Gabe, owns and operates a Ranch. We don’t want the player putting him out of business or competing, so there is no animal breeding in the game: in fact there are no male animals at all. There will be a lot more information in a video we have coming out soon that’s all about animals in SunnySide.
There is no animal breeding in the game: in fact there are no male animals at all
Which games, movies, books, and TV shows have served as the inspiration for SunnySide?
Siavash: Quite a few, but I think the first and most obvious one is the Harvest Moon series. Working in a field in the Japanese countryside in the sunlight and taking your animals back into the barn when it starts to rain is an image, I’m trying to recapture with SunnySide.
Another, rather obvious inspiration is the Persona series, and while the fifth one has the best content and visuals, the one that inspires me the most is the fourth one in the series. The game is based in a small Japanese town, and the weather systems of SunnySide are mostly inspired by the atmosphere of that game.
Lastly, I’d like to mention the Yakuza series with the sheer amount of side activities, minigames and different styles. It convinced us that you can never have enough side activities!
Sydney: Personally, my biggest inspirations have come from the development of Harvest Moon and the successes of Stardew Valley, as well as storytelling techniques from Mass Effect, Zelda, and Fruits Basket. The skills system is heavily influenced by Skyrim and Witcher III, while the art and environment are directly influenced by the Persona series. I don’t mean that we are trying to emulate all these things, but we certainly look to them for guidance.
Your website states that you “aim to foster diversity and community through empathetic fiction, self-expression, and harmony” – how does this manifest in SunnySide?
[Our team's diversity] allowed us to take into consideration the views of the entire team on different subjects, making the story much more relatable to a wider audience
Siavash: The story of SunnySide is very close to the story of our own studio and how it came about. After Kickstarter, a lot of people extended their support to help work on the game directly. Our narrative director and producer Sydney was in fact originally a Kickstarter backer! From there we started to really expand and since we don’t have a physical studio, luckily, we ended up with a very diverse team from all around the world. We have people in the states, the UK, Brazil and many more, coming from all backgrounds and some even lived in Japan for a while! All of this allowed us to take into consideration the views of the entire team on different subjects, making the story much more relatable to a wider audience.
I myself am Iranian, and from the start wanted to include an Iranian mother that had to leave her homeland because of political reasons and give her a gay son. Not many people outside of Iranians know about the horrible truth about homosexuality in Iran. Expand this idea to the entirety of the studio and people from different countries and cultures and I think we have covered a lot more real and sometimes sad stories of people around the world.
And all of this diversity brings harmony, empathy and an understanding for one another, not just in SunnySide but our studio as well.
Sydney: Also, once we decided we were going to lock the sexuality of all the romantic interests… we realized that we were going to have to tackle gender identity in some way. Once we put the systems together, it became very clear that giving the player the ability to truly express themselves was one of the most important things we could do… and it just continued from there. I very much want every character to be relatable in some way, even if you can’t really identify with them as a person. Everyone in SunnySide has some kind of issue that plagues them, and as you uncover those things I wanted to create opportunities to be introspective.
In order to have a Sunny Side, there has to be a dark side…
We never set out to make waves or political statements or anything like that… we just want to make sure there is a place for as many people as possible in our game while working within the very limiting confines of 1s and 0s. It’s a constant work in progress, and we haven’t gotten it perfect, but we’re going to keep trying.
All of these things; self-expression, empathy, deep narratives, and the overall systems of the game: it really all boils down to creating harmony.. It’s even right there in the name: In order to have a Sunny Side, there has to be a dark side… or a “Shady Side” as our QA team started to call it. That dichotomy… there is harmony there. And we want to find it. The world is full of extremes, and I think as humans it’s our responsibility to find the harmony in those extremes and find ways to make them work together.
SunnySide is currently aiming for an early 2023 release on consoles. Thank you to RainyGames for speaking with us!
What are your thoughts on the state of farming games, romance in video games, and rural Japanese farming? Tell us in the comments!